Archdeacon: Wright State’s Taylor brings family together via basketball

Wright State’s Mackenzie Taylor drives for a bucket against Cleveland State during a game earlier this season at the Nutter Center. CONTRIBUTED

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Wright State’s Mackenzie Taylor drives for a bucket against Cleveland State during a game earlier this season at the Nutter Center. CONTRIBUTED

She just shook her head and laughed at the question.

“No, I didn’t play with dolls growing up. I just had no interest in them,” said Wright State senior guard Mackenzie Taylor. “I only had two in my whole life. They bought me one Barbie and I just destroyed it. They got me another and I kept it in the box and donated it to Toys for Tots the next year.

“Really, I don’t remember playing with toys as a kid, or watching TV either. People will say, ‘Don’t you remember that show from your childhood?’ and I say, ‘No.’ I didn’t watch any of the princess movies, none of that.

“I was always outside, playing sports.”

When she was just three she said she pleaded so much to be able play soccer like her older brother was that her dad finally went to the coaches and convinced them to waive the minimum age requirement and let her join the other four and five year olds.

Her real passion, though, was basketball and eventually she became a star at Richmond High School in Indiana, where she became the Red Devils No. 3 all-time scorer with 1,664 points.

More than just a stage where she could show her athletic prowess, the basketball court became a place for her to escape the tension in her family life.

Her parents divorced when she was young and a nasty, five-year custody battle followed. After that the tension still remained and she and her brother often were caught in the middle of it.

On the court, she not only got away from that, but she found her games were the one place all sides of her family, even if they sat on opposite ends of the gym and did not speak to each other — could agree on one thing.

They all cheered for her.

That was one of the reasons she pushed herself so hard after she tore her right anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in June before her junior year at Richmond.

“I had surgery July 17th and I recovered in four months and played in our opener on November 15th,” she said. “I was limited at first, but I never missed a game.”

While some colleges backed off her recruitment due to the injury, she said Wright State was one of three Division I schools who did not waver in its interest and so she signed with the Raiders.

And it was against this backdrop that some people who knew her best – especially her high school coach, the late Casey Pohlenz – became concerned when they watched her play her first season at WSU.

“They could see how I was being, how I was playing,” Mackenzie said. “I had people reach out to me and say: ‘You’re so timid out there, that’s not you. What’s the matter? Are you happy?’”

She was not and now admits she contemplated leaving WSU and maybe even quitting basketball altogether.

At first she had had trouble adjusting to the direct and intense style of Mike Bradbury, then the Raiders head coach. But it was more than, she now says.

She had been a standout back home, but now she was one of six freshmen on a college team filled with players who had been stars at their own high schools. She said she felt many of them were far more athletic than she was:

“I was little. I was slower. I was weak and getting pushed around. I couldn’t play defense. It seemed like nothing was going right and I started questioning myself, wondering if I was good enough to play at this level.

“I lost confidence in myself and I think that’s why I didn’t love the game anymore.”

For various reasons, three of the other freshmen on the squad that year – Alexyse Thomas, Deja Turner and Katie Simon – either transferred out or just stopped playing basketball, Mackenzie said.

She said she was close to becoming casualty No. 4, but some of her mentors convinced her to hang on. After the season Bradbury left for the New Mexico job and his top assistant – Katrina Merriweather, the person who had recruited her – took over.

“She’s always believed in me,” Taylor said.

Merriweather explained: “We talk all the time about how you can have the same present with different wrappings. She just looked different. She’s not long and lean with muscles popping out everywhere.

“But if you look at Mac’s speed, her jumping ability and the lateral quickness she has for someone her size, you’ll see she is very athletic …And she’s tough.

“She was going to be just fine if she gave it a chance.”

Taylor did and she said she couldn’t be more thankful to Merriweather, Pohlenz and the others who helped her shore up her backbone.

“I’ve had a 180-degree turnaround,” she said. “I never would have had the success I’m having now if I’d gone someplace else.”

The 5-foot-6 senior guard has played in 132 games for the Raiders, started 105 and has scored 1,253 points. Last Tuesday she was named to the All Horizon League first team.

She and junior guard Michal Miller – both averaging a team-best 11.8 points per game – lead the 25-6, No. 1 seeded Raiders into Monday’s matchup with IUPUI in the semifinals of the Horizon League Tournament at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.

Just as importantly, Taylor remains the one person who can bring all sides of her family together for one common cause.

She’s not only the family’s first college athlete, but this spring she’ll become its first college graduate.

“She’s the main attraction right now,” said her grandmother, Diane Taylor, who, in four years has come to every Raiders game at the Nutter Center and has gone to some on the road, too.

“I’m just so proud of her. I’m overjoyed actually. Everyone is.”

Mackenzie is especially close to her grandmother, though sometimes she admits being a bit embarrassed by the gushing praise.

“We’ll go someplace and my grandma will point to me and tell people, ‘Do you know who this is? Do you know who you’re talking to?

“And I’m like, ‘Aaawh Grandma!’”

‘We’re not the traditional family’

For Senior Day festivities two weeks ago, she brought her family onto the court with her. Among others, there was Sarah, her mom, her mom’s boyfriend, her mom’s former boyfriend, her dad, Brian, and his wife, her brother and her grandmother.

Half stood on one side of her and the other camp was on the other side.

“We’re not the traditional family,” she told the crowd with a grin, “but we make it work.”

The other day she admitted she’d set some ground rules before that gathering:

“I did have to send out a little message and let everybody know, if they didn’t think they could set aside their differences for me, then they shouldn’t walk out.

“But I don’t think there were any conflicts. Everybody was happy for me and wanted to celebrate that.”

She said she loves her family, enjoys being around them and appreciates what they all have done for her. Even her mom’s former boyfriend, Denver, who she said “has been like another father figure to me since I was little.”

She said over the years she finally came to the realization she had to sidestep the drama and do what was best for her.

Merriweather said she understands what Taylor has gone through:

“Everybody’s family is not clear cut and fits the mold that society views as normal. I know all the people involved here and one thing I especially know:

“They all love her so much.”

Diane Taylor is one of her granddaughter’s most ardent fans.

She even set aside her reservations about New York City – “I was there once before and didn’t like it; there was too much traffic; it was scary,” – and was in the Bronx on Dec. 9 to see Mackenzie score her 1,000th point as a Raider with a second-half three pointer during a game against Manhattan College.

“My son, his wife and I, we drove straight through and then drove right back,” she said. “But we celebrated at the game. We had confetti and signs and we took a video of it.

“I just love watching her out there. I just feel so proud.”

Two wins from NCAA Tournament

Mackenzie credits her success to her grandmother, her parents and many others in the family.

“I’m a product of my environment and I wouldn’t be the player I am now if it wasn’t for my family, and, of course, Trina and the people I play with, too.

“My family has a really strong work ethic and that got relayed to me.”

She singled out her grandmother, who worked 43 years at Belden, a Richmond factory that manufactures high speed electronic cables and wire.

“It wasn’t that long ago that she retired,” Mackenzie said. “When I think of her at 60 years old, driving a fork lift and working hard every day, that inspires me.

“We’ve talked and she’s told me how she raised two kids on her own with that factory work.

“She said there were times she sat down and the money she had didn’t line up with the bills she had. But she said by God’s grace she made it work.

“I saw how hard work paid off for her in various aspects of her life. And now hard work is paying off for me, too.

Mackenzie attends the First English Lutheran Church in Richmond with her grandmother and the two go kayaking in the summers. Both have their own kayaks, as does her dad and his wife.

And once Mackenzie graduates, she and her grandmother will go on a cruise together.

Diane said this will be the 17th cruise she’s taken.

As for her granddaughter, she said: “I gave her the option: ‘Would you like $500 cash or would you like to go on a cruise?’

“She said, ‘Grandma, we had such a good time the last time we went, let’s do it again.’ This time we’re going to St. Thomas and some other places.

“The first time she went, when she was younger, I’d see her on deck followed by a bunch of boys. She had a basketball and they’d play a game on board.”

Monday night, though, is a more important game.

The Raiders are two victories away from a Horizon League Tournament title and the berth in the NCAA Tournament that comes with it.

WSU made its only NCAA Tournament appearance in 2014.

The Raiders usual nemesis is Green Bay, which has won the tournament 16 times and made 18 NCAA tournaments. This season the Phoenix are 21-8 and the No. 2 seed in the league tournament.

WSU split its games with them this season, winning by 18 points in Green Bay on Jan. 3 and then losing by 19 at the Nutter Center on Feb. 9.

Mackenzie said the Raiders are focused on IUPUI and then they’ll worry about whoever is next. If it’s Green Bay, she said they’ll be ready.

Already she and fellow seniors Emily Vogelpohl and Symone Simmons make up the winningest class (97 victories) in WSU history.

“I’m going to cherish these four years for the rest of my life,” she said.

Once the season ends, though, she said her basketball career will be over:

“I’m a finance major and I’m currently interviewing and looking for a job. Basketball has been a large blessing in my life, but the ball stops bouncing sometime. For some it’s sooner than others and right now I’m ready for the next chapter.

“But everybody keeps asking me how I can just walk away after all these years.

“And my boyfriend is a Division I referee. He keeps trying to talk me into refereeing, too. He said I’d be good at it.”

He may be right.

After all, during all these years on the court, she’s shown she has a real knack for keeping rival sides at peace during her games.

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